Review of Unspeakable Things

March 7, 2015

From the March-April 2015 issue of News & Letters

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2014) describes how neoliberalism, defined as “the attempt to reorganize society and the state on the basis of an ideal of ‘the market,’” is the new face of capitalist patriarchy. Under neoliberalism, even feminism has been repackaged once again as the opportunity for middle-class women to climb the corporate ladder and earn more money with which to buy more products. Since “the self is just an entrepreneurial project,” women and men are urged to spend labor and money to make themselves fit into patriarchal gender roles to be more marketable as workers and as lovers. No one is supposed to notice that the economic situation is worsening or to demand justice for poor women, who are instead scapegoated.

Unspeakable Things color large?

Laurie Penny—a 27-year-old journalist and blogger who reports on international social justice movements such as Occupy, in which she is also an activist—writes eloquently about her own experiences trying to negotiate our culture’s demand that women constantly manage their image, which is then subject to self-scrutiny and public surveillance. She discusses how all women must walk the impossible tightrope of trying to be nonthreatening and conventionally attractive to men only to be called a mindless slut if they succeed. She explains how increasing numbers of young women and Queer youth develop self-harming behaviors due to this pressure. As a teen, she was hospitalized for anorexia, but the treatment consisted of making the patients conform to a conventional “feminine” appearance to appear adjusted to society.


Penny’s book is important for anyone trying to understand or accept the reality of the difficulty of being female in the public sphere. Part of that sphere is now the internet, which started with the promise of being open to people of all identities regardless of gender, sexuality, race or class. This turned out to mean that a person can fit in if they pretend to be a cisgender male, white heterosexual. Penny calls a woman’s opinion “the miniskirt of the internet” because any woman expressing one will be harassed online, threatened with physical attacks, and then shamed and blamed for this treatment with moralistic overtones. She discusses how the attitude that there is nothing wrong with this has stifled women and minority participation on the internet and in the sciences, both of which will play a big role in the future.


Unspeakable Things is also important because it discusses the negative effect patriarchal gender roles have on men, which has worsened in today’s economic climate. This effect can cause men to lash out at themselves or against those not like themselves. Penny discusses how it is important to feminism to encourage men to talk about gender and sexuality and how powerful is the insight that can result.

While she does not critique the words “masculine” and “feminine,” Penny does explain how patriarchal stereotypes of how the genders should behave are harmful to everyone. She also connects this critique with one of capitalism, although not in depth. Since creativity and curiosity are important to the internet, and since that is where members of oppressed social groups meet and communicate, Penny says today’s youth have the ability to overthrow old systems and create a new society. She calls for revolution and is optimistic about its success.


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